Raising An Unexpected Boy
I was expecting a girl. It had to be. Even the Chinese website had confirmed it. I was craving spicy food. The signs could not have been clearer. I didn’t prepare the nursery in pink (like the color, hate the idea), but I did have a great name for a girl. Most importantly, I was mentally prepared for parenting a girl.
And then I had a boy. Oh man…
The helpers and guards at the hospital were super thrilled as they angled for a bigger tip. Pink or blue, family and friends were kicked. Friends with baby boys, on the other hand, were foreboding. “Boys have more trouble sleeping at night,” “Boys start talking later,” “Boys wet their bed for a much longer time.” I didn’t need to know that. Like, really. I had a boy—now what was I going to do about it?
We sorted out the name issue quickly, mostly as a counter to our parents’ overzealous suggestions. But I still needed to wrap my head around the idea of raising a boy. There would be the terrible, tiresome and destructive twos, the naughty years that follow, and then puberty and youth. And yet, these didn’t worry me as much as thinking about what values I should raise him with. He could wet the bed for as long as he wanted, as long as he knew to respect women. Respect women? What did that mean? Stand up when they enter the room, keep the door open for them, pay for dates? Is that it, really?
With every passing day, I realized there are so many subtle ways in which boys are raised differently from girls. From the gifts my son gets – toys, as opposed to clothes (my kid wears clothes, too, and with the mess he makes, he needs a lot of them!) – to remarks such as, “Even girls are not shy these days. Why are you hiding behind your mama?” and “Boys should be naughty.” The other day, my dad announced with pride that my son had peed in the pot like a big boy. I guess it was an accurate description; it was certainly like a big boy. He had peed all over the seat.
Boys are different from girls, biologically for sure, but perhaps sociologically and psychologically as well. I don’t buy my son dolls or dress him up in girls’ clothes. I realize that is because of the biases in my head. Will he be different if he plays with dolls and wears girls’ clothes? I think he might be—but is it because there is something about playing with dolls that makes a difference, or is it because he will be treated differently because he plays with dolls? Or is there something inherently different about a child that plays with dolls compared to a child that plays with Legos? Classic chicken or egg questions. But even if there was an answer, would it help me? Noting differences doesn’t equal knowing how to raise a boy.
I started by wrapping my head around what I want to see in the man that I want my son to become.
Respect for women: My husband and I were not high school sweethearts, even though we went to school together. We were good friends, though. He was as foul-mouthed and rude as he is today. The swearing was sexual in nature, as swear words tend to be, but I never felt disrespected as a girl. In fact, as I saw it, girls were generally comfortable around him. It wasn’t because of his charm, for sure; maybe it was his sense of humour. Mostly, it was his respect, even though none of us would articulate it that way. As a son of working parents, he genuinely sees both genders with parity. We are partners and collaborators in everything we have done together, our household, in sport, and in the business we run together. It isn’t always seamless or easy, but it is never gendered. And I want my son to understand that.
Love for animals and the outdoors: We try to take my son out every day, as we do with the dogs. As a baby, he would come out in a monkey pouch. Now, he comes for our morning walks to our neighbourhood park (which is actually a 450-acre forest replete with neelgais, jackals, monkeys and even snakes). He looks out at the world, taking in the sounds of the birds and the car horns. He watches the brisk gait of the morning walkers and the slumping inertia of the schoolkids. “Bo bo,” he says confidently, as he learns to name the animals he sees. I hope he grows up to wonder about wilderness and the world just like that.
He is growing up around two dogs, both of whom tower over him. They sniff him, steal a little kiss when we are not looking, and walk away. He knows to be watchful around the rescue mutt, Rafa, and is happy to clamber and lounge over the gentle Labrador, Buddy. They are his siblings, and it is important to me that he loves them.
Independence: When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said a lot of things, depending on when I was asked the question. On the eve of my departure to the U.S. for college, when asked the same question, I said I wanted to be independent. I wanted to know how to fend for myself, from earning a living, to cooking for myself, to knowing how to change a flat tire. I didn’t think would this happen as long as I remained with my parents. I hope that my son aspires for the same and I hope I am the kind of parent who will allow it to happen. Because, God knows, with that hint of a dimple on his right cheek and the smile that starts from one side before it spreads across his face, he will have no trouble finding people who will take care of him!
As parents, we don’t always do what we say and say what we mean. We now tell girls that they can do and be anything, but we don’t truly mean it. We tell boys that they need to be something, but we don’t expect too much. Mostly, it looks like what we need to fix is ourselves to become more fearless in our parenting, so that we can allow our children the true freedom to make their choices and accept the conventional or unconventional choices they will make.
At this very moment, I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what matters and what doesn’t. It is going to be a lot of trial and error, but ultimately what I want is to raise a man that I can respect.
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